Dangers of misusing over-the-counter medications

Overuse of OTC pain relievers, others can lead to serious consequences

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – You don't always need a prescription to get relief. If used correctly, over-the-counter medications can treat a wide range of ailments including allergies, colds, fever, flu and pain. But experts say many Americans are overusing or misusing OTC drugs -- with potentially dangerous consequences.

Anita Brikman is the Executive Director of the Educational Foundation of the Consumer Healthcare Products Association. She educates consumers about the safe use of OTC medications.

Know your OTC | Know your dose

“They’re a first line of defense from minor to moderate symptoms, and they’re used safely and effectively by millions of Americans,” she said.

Dr. David Dodick is a Mayo Clinic migraine specialist and a professor of neurology. While he said over-the-counter medications are an important tool, his research shows a problem.

“My colleagues and I recently completed a population-based study across the United States and found that amongst patients who had at least one headache within the past 30 days, 15 percent overused these over-the-counter analgesics,” Dodick explained.

It’s not just headache patients. Dodick said the perception for some is that anything you can buy without a prescription isn’t really a drug. And that for people with certain risk factors, including older adults, overuse and misuse of certain OTC pain relievers can potentially lead to gastrointestinal problems including ulcers, kidney disease and more.

“We know now all of them increase the risk significantly of myocardial infarction or having a heart attack and stroke,” said Dodick.

When it comes to OTC pain relievers, Dodick said he isn’t worried about addiction. However, he said he has seen frequent headache sufferers slip into a habit of taking the medications -- say before an event -- in anticipation of getting a headache.

“There is a habituation where the habit-forming, they take the medication and think nothing of taking the medication at the slightest sign of pain,” he said.

While there is little chance of outright addiction with OTC pain relievers, the government says there is chance of addiction and overdose with an ingredient in some cough medicines and an ingredient in some anti-diarrheal medications.

Mayo Clinic drug and supplement guide

Brikman stressed, the best way to avoid possible OTC misuse is to follow the drug facts label closely every time.

“It has all the information you need: how often you should take this medicine, how much you should take, and, very importantly, when you should stop and consult a health care provider,” she said.

While the Food and Drug Administration doesn't regulate over-the-counter-medications the same way it regulates prescriptions, the FDA does oversee the labeling. And those OTC medications must be proven safe and effective.